An oddball chamber piece set at Harvard in the days before the assassination of JFK, “Alma Mater” centers around a middle-aged gay professor, his clueless wife and his lover/teaching assistant, encircled by satellite students with subplots of their own. An austerely distanced sociological group portrait, pic can’t always carry off its ambitious agenda or control its tone. Uneven execution, amateurish thesping on the part of some younger tyros and a late-blooming sense of pace may limit pic to fests and cable outlets, but flashes of wit and inventiveness, particularly surrounding Cady McClain’s Jackie Kennedy look-alike wife, make the sometimes awkward going worthwhile.
Prof. Knight (Will Lyman) is invited to a state dinner at the White House by his former college roommate, John F. Kennedy. But shaken over just having been denied tenure, he has no intention of attending the dinner. Cambridge is the only world he’s ever known. Off campus, and even in his own house, he’s a fish out of water, often to the point of cliche, e.g., a strained husband and wife’s dinner scene with a loudly ticking clock to measure the deafening silence.
Opposing scenes with Knight’s cuddly compassionate T.A. (Alexander Chaplin), on the other hand, ooze openness and warmth, the younger man’s straightforwardness complementing his own buttoned-up self-doubt.Helmer Hans Canosa and screenwriter G. L. (Gabrielle) Zevin achieve true fusion of the psychological and sociological in their depiction of Gwen (soap-opera staple McClain), an insecure spouse who, denied her husband’s attentions and having no persona of her own, consciously models herself on the first lady. Thus the meticulously reconstructed period wardrobe, pill-box hats and ubiquitous gloves (there’s even a knockoff of the ill-fated pink suit) allow her to sally forth, without children or intellectual pretensions, into a world of censorious gossip.
In its creation of a woman whose rare intimations of cleverness, strength and understanding have nowhere to go, “Alma Mater” ventures into “Far From Heaven” territory. Film’s highpoint comes in a kitchen scene where Gwen, her face grotesquely whitened by a drying beauty mask, puffs on a cigarette as she unmolds a Jell-O ring, dubiously eyeing the quivering green mass on the plate before her.
Canosa, whose background is theater, constructs his movie debut like a series of tableaux, an invisible curtain seeming to descend between each segment. The use of an historic mansion further heightens the artificiality. To some extent the effect is deliberate, meant to underscore both the ivory tower insulation of the college and the ruthless repression of everything that falls outside rigidly defined rules of civil interaction. The disconnection also sets up the impressively contrasting final sequence where news broadcasts of Kennedy’s death link all the characters. Yet film retains a deadened “school pageant” feel.
Tom Robotham’s super-16 lensing achieves an impressive formal austerity, but Brian Quill’s undernourished sound design further gives the otherwise well-written, well-acted dialogue a hollow ring.